Oxytocin is a hormone that works in something of a similar way to pheromones. One of the key differences is that oxytocin is not a ‘sexual communicator’ per se, but rather is produced by the body in order to regulate more general feelings of social trust and bonding in the individual. However, like pheromones, it has been found to produce these effects when inhaled from outside of the body (for example, via a spray).
There is much excitement in the medical community that oxytocin could one day be used as an effective treatment for a wide spectrum of social disorders, ranging from social anxiety to autism and even schizophrenia. A recent study conducted by Kings College London has raised these hopes further.
Scientists at Kings College London tested the hormone on 17 healthy volunteers. The oxytocin was administered by three different routes in order to see if each method had different effects to the others – through a nasal spray, through injection into the blood stream, and via a neubulizer.
Each of them received oxytocin through injections, a normal nasal spray and a nebuliser – a mask that covers the face and delivers medicine as you breathe.
While the patients received the drug, their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner.
Dr Paloyelis and their team observed that in all three methods of delivery, the blood flow to the amygdala – the region of the brain involved in processing social information, emotion and anxiety – was reduced.
They also found that levels of excitement and alertness decreased.
Previous studies have shown that people who suffer from anxiety show increased activity in the amygdala regions of their brains.
Therefore, reduced activity may help to ease symptoms present in social situations.
The researchers also found that administering the drug via the nasal route targeted areas of the brain which the injection method did not reach, although it was not clear where.
The scientists concluded that the use of oxytocin as a potential treatment for social disorders may depend on the specific region of the brain targeted, and that a particular method of administering the oxytocin to the desired region may be more effective than others.